Alarm grows over genetic 'dynamite'

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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

The Government's green advisers voiced alarm yesterday about the release of genetically engineered life forms into the environment.

The five-strong panel, set up five years ago as a follow-up to the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, called for much wider and more careful Government thinking on the rules allowing releases of such plants, animals and micro- organisms and for better scrutiny of the results.

''We are playing not just with fire but with dynamite,'' said Sir Crispin Tickell, the former ambassador to the United Nations, who chairs the panel. Its remit is to give the Prime Minister advice on achieving sustainable development.

Britain, in partnership with other European Union countries, must consider developing emergency procedures before any major commercial releases of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) take place, in case there are unforeseen repercussions.

In its second annual report, the panel makes the comparison with CFCs, pesticides and thalidomide, new products which were thought to be safe and of great benefit, but found to cause severe damage after their release. ''People simply haven't understood the effects of their actions,'' said Sir Crispin, the warden of an Oxford post-graduate college.

Genetic engineering is seen as one of the next century's biggest industries, bringing great advances in agriculture, medicine and other fields. Genes from fungi, bacteria and viruses can be stitched into the genetic material of other micro-organisms or higher plants and animals, giving them abilities foreign to their nature. The genes being transferred can even be designed and created in laboratories.

The technology is still mainly at the experimental stage but there have already been hundreds of releases of altered plants and animals into the environment, in Britain and other countries. Giving a crop plant improved resistance to a particular weed-killer is one common example. This weed- killer can then be used to allow the farmer a higher yield.

But there are fears that the "foreign" genes could spread into other micro-organisms in the wild. Unlike higher animals, bacteria and viruses have the ability to swap genes between quite different species and they can multiply their numbers very rapidly. There is the possibility that the ability to resist pesticides might be transferred to destructive pests and disease species.

Current controls on releases depend on expert committees covering medicine, agriculture and food giving advice to ministers on whether particular experiments should go ahead, case by case. Sir Crispin said the arrangements were ''messy and badly co-ordinated''.

Central to its proposals, the panel asks the Government to bring together industrialists, academics, doctors, representatives of consumer and environmental groups, and inde- pendent experts, to consider a broader control regime covering both medicine and industrial/agricultural applications.